Saturday, September 07, 2019

Convicted child pornography collector was a MUM trustee and major donor to TM organizations

It’s a standard article of faith among many practitioners of Transcendental Meditation, that long-term practice of TM improves moral decision making, and a movement spokesperson has even claimed that donating money to the organization will hasten one’s own “personal evolution.” The recent conviction and imprisonment of a long-term meditator, former Maharishi University of Management trustee and major donor to the cause of TM emphasizes what should be obvious: that meditators are seldom any better off than most everyone else, and the people who make such claims should never be trusted.

There are certain claims of eventual benefits that are regularly made to people after they’ve started practicing TM, that are often eagerly accepted by those who’ve had enough experience with it that, accurately or otherwise, they begin to view it as beneficial for themselves. The experience of perceived initial, immediate benefit primes them to readily believe what they’re told may come later if they stick with the program. These claims stand in stark contrast to the everyday, mundane reality of the lives of many long-term meditators. That has never stopped both those meditators, and people with positions of responsibility in TM organizations, from continuing to make specific yet completely unsupportable claims about how all meditators’ lives will be improved through the practice of TM.

Far exceeding their public promotional claims of stress-free, healthy lives made as if TM were some “wellness” cure-all for everyone, are the statements that aren’t often made in public, and that are reinforced among meditators and in the meditating subculture. One of the most ridiculous, if not corrosive, of these claims is that of “spontaneous right action” resulting from long-term practice of TM and related “Maharishi” branded programs.  But if you know where to look, you’ll find out that the publishing operation of the Maharishi University of Management (MUM) actually has printed such drivel, written by the university’s vice president of academic affairs, and former executive vice president, Craig Pearson. This places such things well beyond the realm of simple rumor, into that of fully acceptable, officially sanctioned, doctrine or belief.

Keeping in mind that though every TM introductory lecturer insists that “no belief is necessary” to practice TM, people who’ve been meditating for decades often sound much like the following quote from  “The Complete Book of Yogic Flying,” a book which describes the TM movement’s long-running levitation hoax that they call the “TM-Sidhi program.” To insiders who do this “program,” the point isn’t necessarily to actually levitate, since every single one of them knows that all they’re able to do is simply bounce on foam rubber and convince themselves that whatever they’re doing in their minds at the same time is somehow worthwhile and beneficial, is worth spending considerable sums of money to learn, and is worth spending two hours a day, or more, doing. This excerpt is much like that:
Moral reasoning ability increases significantly after people learn the Transcendental Meditation technique, and even more after they learn the TM-Sidhi program. Moral reasoning ability, moreover, is correlated with EEG coherence; that is, the more coherent one's brain physiology, the greater one's moral development. The "moral compass" resides in a coherently functioning brain.

As we grow in enlightenment and live increasingly in accord with Natural Law, Maharishi explains, we spontaneously use our growing creativity and intelligence more responsibly, acting in a way that benefits everyone around us. This growth of "life-supporting behavior" reaches its fulfillment in Cosmic Consciousness, when we enjoy what Maharishi calls spontaneous right action. We no longer make mistakes. Everything we do is for good.
Almost every sentence of these two paragraphs is completely disconnected from authentic, generally accepted, scientific research. EEG coherence is one of the TM movement’s hobby horses, and this assertion of such a hard link between alleged TM-induced coherence and moral behavior exists solely in the realm of unpublished research performed at the movement’s university by meditators who were once trained in the scientific method. But that hasn’t stopped these assertions from becoming some of the core beliefs of thousands of meditators.

This is a more recent quote from one of the TM movement leaders who call themselves “rajas,” Howard Chandler, aka "Raja Chancellor." He may be a Harvard graduate, but what he is talking about here is not scientific in any way, shape or form. It’s a tenet of religious fundamentalism that stems from Maharishi’s particular interpretation of the Vedas, the Hindu scriptures of India, which presupposes some universal source of thought, or “nature’s intelligence,” that can be contacted via meditation, specifically TM:
The possibility of mistake-free administration lies in the ability to think, speak, and act from the level of nature’s intelligence, which administers all life. Such enlightened administration is developed by transcending the boundaries of individuality and awakening to the universality of Transcendental Consciousness. When our mind is able to function from that level, then spontaneously our thoughts, words and actions are attuned with all of life.

Everyone practising TM is going to make fewer and fewer mistakes as time passes and their consciousness develops...
With all that in mind, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Ohio in October 2018, here is the real-world status of a former MUM trustee (2002-2011) and major donor to TM organizations, who contributed almost five million US dollars over the course of the past twenty years.
A Canton man was sentenced to more than eight years in prison for child pornography crimes.

Marshall Belden, Jr., 70, previously pleaded guilty to receiving, distributing and possessing visual depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct. Belden was sentenced to 103 months in federal prison.

Belden on Oct. 24, 2016 knowingly received and distributed numerous computer files which contained visual depictions of real minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, and which files had been shipped and transported in and affecting interstate and foreign commerce. On Jan. 26, 2017, Belden possessed a computer and an external hard drive, each of which contained child pornography, according to court documents.
Canton, Ohio newspaper, The Repository, reported more details of his arrest and court records:
“Whatever moral compass he had just got lost in what he called his hell,” [psychotherapist in his defense Candace B.] Risen testified.

She said that Belden exhibited compulsive behaviors and characteristics of a hoarder.
The morning a search warrant was executed at his home, the defendant’s computer was on and he had approximately 50 windows open related to or displaying child pornography, according to court records filed by prosecutors.

From September 2015 until the search warrant on Jan. 16, 2017, Belden downloaded at least 134,000 images and about 1,100 videos depicting minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct, according to court records.
According to the Repository, Marshall “Marsh” Belden was “known for his charitable efforts in Stark County and restoration and development projects in downtown Canton.” But the tax filings of the charitable foundation run by Belden and two other trustees reveal that he had other, evidently more important funding priorities beyond his local area.

Most of the funding history of Belden’s foundation, The Olive Branch Foundation, is available online via this database. It shows that of over 6 million dollars donated by that foundation between 1999 and 2016, about 4.8 million dollars went to various organizations connected with Transcendental Meditation. The largest portion of that, about $2.5 million, went to the Maharishi Global Development Fund (MGDF) and its successor, the Brahmananda Saraswati Foundation (BSF). Both of those organizations primarily fund the movement’s activities in India managed by Maharishi’s nephew, Girish Varma, which include a chain of secondary schools and a gathering of “vedic pandits,” that are sometimes called, by them, “peace-creating experts.” Their task is to continuously chant portions of Vedic scripture and hymns in hopes that that activity will help to bring about world peace.

Belden also was connected with the since-abandoned project to establish a compound at the movement’s U.S. base at Fairfield, Iowa, in which a thousand or more such pandits would be housed, according to this 2007 report at one of the TM movement’s websites:

Dr Wynne also expressed his great appreciation and gratitude to the Vedic Pandit Board that Dr John Hagelin established in 2003. 'Those five individuals had this vision that we need Maharishi's Vedic Pandits here in order to create invincibility and peace for the nation,' said Raja Wynne. Dr Hagelin is the Chairman of the Vedic Pandit Board and the organizing power behind it. Dr Howard Settle was also on that board, along with Dr Ramani Ayer, Trustee of MUM; Marshall Belden; and Bob Brown.

Detail of  two million dollar grant in 2001 by Belden's
foundation to the MGDF, for "India construction project"
From 2001 Olive Branch Foundation form 990
Further examination of the donation history and tax filings shows that the largest single donation by Belden’s foundation was two million dollars in 2001 to the Maharishi Global Development Fund. That amount was specifically earmarked for an unspecified “India construction project.” That same year, support for a local historic preservation effort only totaled $210,000, the second largest donation that year.

Other significant donations by Belden’s foundation over that twenty year period totalled $1.26 million to Maharishi University of Management and its “Institute of Science, Technology and Public Policy” run by MUM president John Hagelin. Another $1.1 million went to other TM-connected organizations, including $770,000 to the Global Country of World Peace, and $36,000 in 1999 to the Alliance for Bio-Integrity, which seeks to eliminate genetic engineering based on what Maharishi considered to be Vedic principles.

Marsh Belden as MUM trustee. From 2004
Maharishi University of Management form 990
Belden was a MUM trustee for almost half of those twenty years, so clearly he had a long-standing allegiance to the TM movement. Still, why would a wealthy individual donate millions of dollars to such an organization, instead of supporting charitable work locally or in their own country? The TM movement’s claims of both personal benefit, and its goal of somehow creating “world peace,” are attractive to some. But a recent (2017) video produced to solicit donations to the Brahmananda Saraswati Foundation, ostensibly to support their “Global Peace Initiative” - creating a body of nine thousand of the aforementioned chanting, singing pandits in India - offers some additional clues.

The video is hosted by Mustafa Nuristani, an Australian TM teacher and former journalist, who spends the first ten minutes or so going over the usual pseudo-scientific claims that are commonly held as absolute truth among meditators: that TM creates a unique, beneficial, particular state of consciousness, and that if enough people regularly achieve that state, regional and global peace will result, in what they call the “Maharishi Effect.” Personal growth is directly tied by them to the fate of the planet. But about twelve minutes into the video, things take a strange turn, where Nuristani, with the support of personal stories delivered for three minutes by a series of donor-meditators, claims that donating money to the BSF will hasten one’s own “personal evolution:”

This is the overall experience of most of the sponsors. It gives a real boost to their personal evolution. So try it yourself. Start with an amount that seems comfortable to you, and see what happens. But one thing. Please do it on a monthly basis. This creates stability for probably one of the most important projects of mankind. And it brings you lasting blessings of all the laws of nature. (Video at 13:50)

“Blessings” are a matter of personal interpretation, but one of the meditator’s stories delivered just before this is very clear what that means to them: give money, and you’ll receive money in return. Circumstances are unspecified, of course, but the meaning is clear enough:
Another large amount came to us during the year after we gave, so we decided to continue on a permanent monthly basis. (Video at 12:35)
As is often true among meditators, they often tie their well being to some “support of nature” which is the claimed benefit of regular access to the “source of all the laws of nature” that is part of the underlying doctrine that’s delivered with Transcendental Meditation. Unlike claims commonly made in the past - where becoming a TM teacher, taking an advanced course such as the TM-Sidhi program, or even wearing special gemstones, all of which come with a price tag of money and, often, time -  would enhance this alleged “support of nature,” here it’s simply the donation of money that is credited with providing this beneficial effect.
But once I started donating for this project, I had great support of nature. And my dream was just to be working for peace for the world, and actually this dream became true, I'm just working for peace. (Video at 12:45)
All of these beliefs, constantly reinforced in the social environment common among meditators, create the possibility that some meditators will start digging a hole for themselves, in search of some elusive state of “enlightenment,” and despite diminishing returns, are unable to stop. They end up spending vast amounts of time and money on what they’re told will result in their own “personal evolution,” at an eventual great cost to themselves. Often, nothing about their life improves, or the obsession with all these things is detrimental to them.

Former TM teacher John Knapp once created a handy worksheet for members of such high-demand groups to calculate how much they’ve actually spent in both money and time. The Transcendental Meditation “program” is ultimately so much more than just meditation; there are many other courses and products that are designed to extract wealth from those who participate, along with the outright solicitation of donations often aimed at very wealthy people, but not exclusively so. Small and large amounts collected from both donations and from sales of products and services, in aggregate, have resulted in a flow of hundreds of millions of dollars back to India over the course of a few decades, where that wealth is used to fund institutions that have a close relationship with a Hindu fundamentalist, political and religious agenda.

Remarkably, this tactic of claiming, or implying, direct personal benefit or renumeration as a reward for donating to a religious cause or leader mirrors the methods of “prosperity gospel” Christian pastors and televangelists in the United States. Here, the idea that donations are a “seed” that would eventually be returned to the donor in some vague and nonspecific way can be traced to mid-20th century Pentecostal preachers such as Oral Roberts. Wealthy donors would, in exchange, receive exclusive access to the upper echelons of the ministry, similar to that of Marsh Belden receiving a MUM trustee position, coincidentally or otherwise, after donating two million dollars to a related organization. The poor and others who contribute small amounts receive nothing but constant demands to send more.

As would be fitting for an organization that insists that everything about its leading product, Transcendental Meditation, “isn’t a religion” or “doesn’t involve belief,” the vague concept of “support of nature” is simplistically substituted for that of “God.” These claims of reciprocal benefit by supernatural means, that result from donating money line up very closely with the predatory fundraising practices of Christian ministries. For decades, the “not a religion” mantra, and a frequent, informal insistence that all TM critics are themselves Christian fundamentalists, have been drilled into many long-term meditators. That may interfere with noticing that the very same tactics and methods are very similar across both common elements of Christian fundamentalism and the underlying doctrines of Transcendental Meditation. Much like many other exploitative religious organizations, empty promises that personal growth or wealth will magically arrive by donating money and obeying the organization’s directions, are now used by leaders of the TM movement to sustain and grow its organizations, and in this case, send vast amounts of money back to India for religious purposes.

Ultimately, the problem is the fundamental assertions that have long been made for Transcendental Meditation, that even show up in their promotional materials, books and the introductory lecture. TM’s devotees hold them to be true no matter what, even when real-world events and facts contradict what are obviously tenets of faith in a system that doesn’t dare come clean and admit that it involves what might as well be called, outright, religious belief. The all-encompassing, with-no-exceptions, nature of those tenets is perhaps best summarized in one sentence in the introduction of The TM Book, published in 1975:
The Transcendental Meditation program changes the quality of life from poverty, emptiness, and suffering to abundance, fulfillment, and happiness.
The fraudulent audacity of this sentence is, in hindsight, rather breathtaking. That so many people have thrown away countless amounts of money and time in futile pursuit of these imaginary goals through the endless methods that the TM program provides - now openly including the simple donation of cold hard cash - should be a warning to prospective meditators. These absolutist claims of benefit, and everything and everyone that comes with them, cannot be trusted. It’s also a reminder to those who already are meditators, that if it’s not working for you, it’s time to stop.

Photo composite: Stark County Jail via The Repository, Canton, Ohio; Bureau of Prisons Federal Inmate Locator website; Wikimedia Commons

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